When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And for the first few years of adjustment to digital publishing, publishers saw platforms like Facebook as simply a means to grow their audiences.

That was at a time when having a huge digital readership was seen as the be-all and end-all, but as the economics of scale have become more apparent the thinking around publishers’ relationships with platforms has evolved. Now there’s much more of a focus on how platforms can directly help publishers monetise rather than just grow. As Emily Bell said back in 2015 – if it makes commercial sense for publishers to exist on platforms like Instant Articles, then they’ll just do it and be damned.

Now reports have begun trickling in that it might not be worth it, for the larger publishers at least. Digital Context Next’s Distributed Content Revenue Benchmark Report 2017 (an abridged version of which can be found here) found that publishers aren’t seeing the returns they expected for publishing their content on platforms, with Instant Articles and Snapchat in particular singled out as delivering meagre results.

Quartz’s Ashley Rodriguez summarised the results:

“During the first six months of 2016, third-party platforms made up an estimated average of $7.7 million in revenue per publisher, or 14% of the average overall revenue, the trade group found, citing data provided by 17 of its 19 partners.

“Most of that revenue—85% of it, or an estimated average of $6.5 million—came from video content, especially from ads that aired on direct-to-consumer subscription services and device apps like Roku and Apple TV.”

Consequently, in the suggestions for best practice at the end of the report DCN suggest platforms address their business requirements and expectations during the negotiations and in the on-going relationships with those platforms. But given the power imbalance between the publishers and the new intermediaries between them and their audiences, it’s far from a given that there’ll be any redressing of the terms platforms dictate.

DCN’s CEO Jason Kint subsequently told Quartz that ‘the economics suggest that many publishers still see these platforms as marketing vehicles’. That’s an assertion also made in media analyst Kevin Anderson’s latest study for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, entitled Beyond The Article: Frontiers of editorial and commercial innovation, in which he notes that:

“Commercially, traditional forms of revenue like display advertising and subscription play a small role, and most current and planned business models are based around a combination of other sources of revenue, including native advertising and sponsored content, coupons, partnerships, or the sale of services, where the news content serves as a form of loss leader.”

Anderson told TheMediaBriefing (in a recording for a podcast set to be released next Tuesday, March 14th) that he advocates publishers building in those commercial considerations right from the start too, but he notes that in a lot of cases (such as a publisher experimenting with delivering news on Tinder) distributed content is moving towards personalisation, long seen as the holy grail for publishers.

So while distributed content might not – yet – be paying the bills for publishers, there’s certainly the hope that it might ultimately enable publishers to deliver on personalised content.